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Unit 6: Groundwater Availability and Resources

Translated and adapted by Ruth Hoff, Wittenberg University, from Unit 6 material of Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources module by Adriana Perez, Jill S. Schneiderman, Meg Stewart, and Joshua Villalobos
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These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


In this unit, students analyze and interpret groundwater data. They make predictions about what will happen to groundwater levels as human activities change, and discuss possible solutions to minimize groundwater depletion.

Science and Engineering Practices

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions: Construct an explanation that includes qualitative or quantitative relationships between variables that predict(s) and/or describe(s) phenomena. MS-P6.1:

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Use graphical displays (e.g., maps, charts, graphs, and/or tables) of large data sets to identify temporal and spatial relationships. MS-P4.2:

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Construct, analyze, and/or interpret graphical displays of data and/or large data sets to identify linear and nonlinear relationships. MS-P4.1:

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking: Apply ratios, rates, percentages, and unit conversions in the context of complicated measurement problems involving quantities with derived or compound units (such as mg/mL, kg/m3, acre-feet, etc.). HS-P5.5:

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions: Design, evaluate, and/or refine a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations. HS-P6.5:

Asking Questions and Defining Problems: ask questions to determine relationships, including quantitative relationships, between independent and dependent variables HS-P1.3:

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution. HS-P4.1:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Patterns: Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data. MS-C1.4:

Patterns: Patterns in rates of change and other numerical relationships can provide information about natural and human designed systems MS-C1.2:

Patterns: Patterns can be used to identify cause and effect relationships. MS-C1.3:

Cause and effect: Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems. MS-C2.2:

Patterns: Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns. HS-C1.5:

Cause and effect: Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects. HS-C2.1:

Cause and effect: Changes in systems may have various causes that may not have equal effects. HS-C2.4:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Human Impacts on Earth Systems: Human activities have significantly altered the biosphere, sometimes damaging or destroying natural habitats and causing the extinction of other species. But changes to Earth’s environments can have different impacts (negative and positive) for different living things. MS-ESS3.C1:

Biodiversity and Humans: Changes in biodiversity can influence humans’ resources, such as food, energy, and medicines, as well as ecosystem services that humans rely on—for example, water purification and recycling. MS-LS4.D1:

Natural Resources: Resource availability has guided the development of human society. HS-ESS3.A1:

Natural Resources: All forms of energy production and other resource extraction have associated economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical costs and risks as well as benefits. New technologies and social regulations can change the balance of these factors. HS-ESS3.A2:

Human Impacts on Earth Systems: The sustainability of human societies and the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources. HS-ESS3.C1:

Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience: Moreover, anthropogenic changes (induced by human activity) in the environment—including habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation, and climate change—can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species. HS-LS2.C2:

Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems: Humanity faces major global challenges today, such as the need for supplies of clean water and food or for energy sources that minimize pollution, which can be addressed through engineering. These global challenges also may have manifestations in local communities HS-ETS1.A2:

Biodiversity and Humans: Humans depend on the living world for the resources and other benefits provided by biodiversity. But human activity is also having adverse impacts on biodiversity through overpopulation, overexploitation, habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, and climate change. Thus sustaining biodiversity so that ecosystem functioning and productivity are maintained is essential to supporting and enhancing life on Earth. Sustaining biodiversity also aids humanity by preserving landscapes of recreational or inspirational value. HS-LS4.D1:

Performance Expectations

Engineering Design: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts. HS-ETS1-3:

Earth and Human Activity: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. HS-ESS3-1:

  1. This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

    • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
    • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
    • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
    • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
    • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

  2. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

    This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

    For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: May 23, 2016


In this unit, students address the issue of groundwater demands and environmental justice in the arid Southwest, a region with some of the largest percentages of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States. Students discuss the Rule of Capture, the overuse of water resources, and the dwindling supply of groundwater in many parts of the Ogallala Aquifer. Students connect groundwater's role to the hydrological cycle and consider how issues of inequity can occur when groundwater is not properly regulated.

Learning Goals

Unit 6 activities support the module goals of being able to articulate the principles of environmental justice as they relate to examples of water scarcity and contamination using the Ogallala Aquifer in the United States as a case study. This unit also discusses potential solutions to inequitable access to clean water in the Ogallala.

The specific learning objectives for this unit align with the World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages as follows:

  • Communication:
    • Interpersonal Communication: Spanish language learners interact and negotiate meaning in spoken conversations to share information, reactions, and opinions about groundwater and its scarcity in the Southwestern United States.
  • Connections:

    • Making Connections: Spanish language learners build, reinforce, and expand their knowledge of other disciplines while using Spanish to develop critical thinking. As part of this learners will be able to:

      • discuss the relationship between the hydrological cycle and availability of groundwater resources
      • predict if a regions' groundwater availability is of concern
      • explain how groundwater resources can be depleted
      • obtain data to assess changes in groundwater levels

Context for Use

This unit may be used for one day of instruction in an intermediate-level Spanish class. It can be customized to meet different classroom formats and times. The unit communicates the critical need for management of freshwater and ways in which the students may take part in its conservation. This unit is designed for a 50-minute course but can be modified to fit various schedules. Students should have been introduced to the concepts of environmental justice and the water cycle prior to this lesson.

Description and Teaching Materials


Actividad para explorar los datos del USGS (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 5.4MB May19 16): This document walks students through the USGS groundwater data site and has them investigate groundwater depletion issues in a region of Texas. Email the document to students or give them electronic access via other means so that they can use the embedded links. Students should complete the activity and answer the questions prior to class in order to participate in the think-pair-share activity in class.

Answer key to Actividad para explorar los datos del USGS (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 5.4MB May19 16)


Group discussion (10 min)

Have students discuss the following concepts as an in-class think-pair-share activity using their pre-class activity results. Have students discuss the following questions in groups (broad answers are suggested):

  • Question: Over time what has happen to groundwater level in the area investigated? In your opinion, what was the reason for any changes? Con el paso del tiempo, ¿qué ha pasado con el nivel freático en el área investigada? En tu opinión, ¿por qué ocurrió cualquier cambio?

  • Concept: Over time, groundwater levels have been decreasing in the study areas.
    • In arid regions where water is scarce, groundwater is considered a valuable commodity. Groundwater may have taken thousands of years to fill up an aquifer in a previously wetter climate cycle. Unfortunately, in arid regions that have large aquifers and a shallow water table, the commodity is easily accessed and often leads to overuse and mismanagement. The data show that in many arid areas the water table has dramatically fallen because groundwater has been extracted faster than it can be replaced, and such usage produces draw-down effects.
  • Question: Is agriculture (farming) the only reason for possible groundwater decline? If not, what other sources could be contributing to the decline? How do these sources use groundwater? ¿Es la agricultura la única causa de una posible reducción del agua subterránea? ¿Cuáles serían otras fuentes que podrían contribuir a la reducción del agua? ¿Cómo utilizan ellas el agua subterránea?
  • Concept: Agriculture is not the only cause for groundwater depletion.
    • The availability of easily accessible clean groundwater not only attracts large-scale agriculture, but also large populations and communities. Cities and communities need water in order to provide basic facilities to their customers. Sewage (waste treatment plants), electricity (water to cool the turbines), municipal parks (sprinklers, irrigation), and private residences (faucets, outside irrigation, pools, toilets, etc.) need water, and residents are often not aware of the amount they use on a daily basis. The lack of understanding of the amount of water used, where it comes from, and how it is allocated often leads to a community's misuse of water and the depletion of an aquifer. What might take hundreds of thousands of years for an aquifer to fill with annual rainfall may be completely drained in a matter of decades if the groundwater is mismanaged.

Groundwater depletion slides discussion (25 min)

The slides El agua subterránea -- Texas (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 4MB Oct19 15) include integrated class discussion. Notes on information and activities are included at the bottom of the slides of the presentation.

Water Conservation Activity (15 min)

A water conservation activity is embedded in the slides. Students will work in pairs with each of the students reading a separate article. One student will read the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (Acrobat (PDF) 305kB Oct19 15), a fact sheet created by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), designed to help landowners reduce water use. The second student will read the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative Progress Report (Acrobat (PDF) 3.2MB Oct19 15), which shows the status of the initiative, which has reduced water withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer by 489 billion gallons over four years. The Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OAI) accounted for about 29 percent of this savings. Discussion questions are included in the slides.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The main objective of this unit is to have students comprehend the use, significance, and details of groundwater resources and their own connection to these resources via their water footprint—even if they do not live in the region of the Ogallala Aquifer. Many topics discussed in this unit can be expanded to help students comprehend the concept of groundwater issues. Some topics that can be discussed and integrated into additional assignments are:

  • A further investigation of different regions of the Ogallala Aquifer (regions of increased groundwater level slide 9 map B) using the USGS website.
  • An activity for students to calculate the water footprint of the food in a grocery bill, items on a restaurant receipt, or in their lunch, which can then be combined into their results for the activity done in Unit 2 calculating their daily water usage.
  • Students can explore other conservation methods to save groundwater and give specific locations or communities that are implementing these techniques.


Homework assignment -- Use the Assessment Rubric Unit 6 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 107kB Apr30 16) on the following questions to determine level of comprehension.

Assessment question 1: Describe the significance of the Ogallala Aquifer to US agriculture and explain why agricultural production is concentrated in this region of the United States. How might the groundwater of the Ogallala Aquifer be connected to the hydrological cycle, and how can this connection/relationship be affected by overuse of the groundwater? What potential groups in society may be affected and why?

Describe la importancia del acuífero Ogallala para la agricultura de los EEUU y explica por qué la producción agrícola se concentra en esta región de los EEUU. ¿Cómo puede conectarse el agua subterránea del acuífero Ogallala con el ciclo del agua (el ciclo hidrológico) y cómo puede esta conexión ser afectada por el sobreuso del agua subterránea? ¿Cuáles son algunos grupos en la sociedad que pueden ser afectados y por qué?

Assessment question 2: Compare the issues of freshwater resources and environmental justice found in this unit with those found in one other part of the world we have studied. What do these two situations have in common? What strategies are required to resolve the conflicts over water in each case? What is the role that scientific research can play to help resolve these conflicts?

Compara los temas del agua y la justicia ambiental encontrados en esta unidad con los encontrados en otra parte del mundo que hemos estudiado. ¿Qué tienen en común las dos situaciones? ¿Cuáles son las estrategias que se requieren para resolver los conflictos sobre el agua en cada caso? ¿Cuál es el papel que la investigación científica puede jugar para ayudar a resolver estos conflictos?

Student Self-Assessment

To provide an opportunity for students to reflect on what they have learned in Unit 6, ask students to write one thing that they feel they have learned in this unit, or that seems particularly clear, and one thing that still seems confusing, unclear, or incomplete.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »